Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention: A Guide for Educators, Parents, and Students
Reviewed by Jon Konen, District Superintendent
If you or someone you know needs help now, please contact a helpline.
Suicide is a challenging topic to tackle. We want to think that our students, children, or classmates can’t be affected by it, but it’s sadly a common occurrence among young people. To prevent suicides, we need to educate ourselves about the topic.
This article will provide an overview of indicators for suicidal tendencies, information on how to recognize suicidal tendencies, and resources to find help for your student, child, or yourself.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between ages 10 and 34 in the United States.
- Recorded suicides as young as aged 5 – 9 are less frequent but still occur at a rate of 0.31 per 100,000 children and disproportionately affects boys.
- Suicide rates among Black children between 5-11 years old are double those of white children.
- Among American Indian and Alaskan Native populations, suicide rates are higher than the overall U.S. rates between ages 5 and 44, with rates peaking in adolescence or young adulthood—ages 15-24 and 25-34.
Top Seven Indicators for Suicidal Tendencies
It’s important to note that “indicators” for suicidal tendencies don’t necessarily lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. Additionally, indicators aren’t causes of suicide. Instead, they’re signs that there’s potential for suicidal tendencies. While these indicators should be monitored, be careful not to make assumptions based solely on them. You don’t need to hover over the person who has these indicators, but keep your eye out to see if they lead to worrisome actions.
Teachers should also look out for each other as well. The challenges students face in school as it relates to depression and anxiety can also affect teachers. While stressors might be different, indicators can be similar to what you see in children.
Suicide deaths rarely have one singular cause, and blaming every suicide death on mental health conditions could contribute to stigma around these diagnoses.
– Seth Abrutyn, assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, as paraphrased by Time Magazine
1. Substance Abuse
According to the American Addiction Centers, one in 10 young adults (age 18 to 25) has an alcohol abuse disorder, and one in seven has a substance use disorder. While these statistics look at the use and abuse by young adults, the disorders can show up among younger people, especially those who begin experimenting with substance use at an early age.
Experimentation is relatively normal among young people, but those who start very young are more likely to develop substance abuse disorders as they grow up. A Kelty Mental Health Resource Center article provides an overview of substances to be aware of and stages of substance use with which parents and teachers can become familiar. You can keep clear lines of communication open with young people in your life by having open and honest conversations about substance use.
2. Access to Means
Studies have shown that reducing access to means of suicide (firearms being the most common) can lead to a decrease in the possibility of suicide attempts or completions. Additionally, young people are notably more prone to impulsive actions. If they have easy means for suicide attempts, they’re at a higher risk of carrying out the actions in moments of “acute psychosocial stressors.”
3. Traumatic Events
Trauma comes in many forms. Sadly, one of the most common types of trauma among children is abuse. The Centre for Suicide Prevention highlights that children who have experienced abuse are at a much higher risk of attempting suicide. Additionally, one in five children who experienced terrorist violence will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is linked to suicide ideation.
4. Family History of Suicide
Studies have shown that suicide has the potential to run in the family. However, it’s important to note that familial ties related to suicide are often linked to other mental health issues. In this case, the history of suicide in the family might help you identify hereditary mental health illnesses in your child, which you can learn more about below.
5. Previous Attempts
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry notes that previous suicide attempts are a potential risk factor for future attempts: 37% of people who attempt suicide try again within a year.
6. Mental Illnesses or Mood Disorders
Studies have shown that the majority of people who die by suicide suffer from mental disorders (and some statistics show that it could be up to 90%). Children also can have mental illnesses: at least one in five young people between nine and 17 years-old has a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Here are some mental health disorders commonly associated with suicidal thoughts. Note that while this list doesn’t include them explicitly, mood disorders (e.g., anxiety, attachment disorders, and eating disorders) should also be monitored. Additionally, you shouldn’t be quick to attribute certain behaviors to mental illness. The right medical and psychiatric professionals should be the ones to determine the diagnosis.
Common Mental Health Disorders Related to Suicide
Bipolar disorder is manifests in extreme mood swings. While the average age of onset is 25, teens and children can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Borderline Personality Disorder
BPD is tricky to diagnose because symptoms can be linked to any number of factors, but it usually involves a prolonged display of strong feelings or behaviors that range from intense feelings of sadness or anger, to worries of criticism or embarrassment, to acts of self-harm. The onset of BPD symptoms can occur at a young age, typically during adolescence.
As a type of mood disorder, depression usually manifests as a low mood that lasts for many weeks that makes day-to-day functioning difficult for a child. There is no typical age of onset, but according to CDC statistics, 1.9 million children in the U.S. between the ages of three and 17 have depression diagnoses.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
People usually experience PTSD after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event such as sexual violence or serious injury. It can also occur because of many traumatic events, whether major or seemingly minor, that added up over time. (This variation is known as C-PTSD; though this isn’t yet officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, psychologists generally acknowledge its existence, even if they can’t provide an official diagnosis). Children react very differently to their trauma, so there aren’t consistent indicators, but parents and teachers who know a child has experienced trauma can be tuned into their behaviors.
Schizophrenia affects a person’s ability to understand reality and is often displayed through irrational behavior or psychosis. Symptoms of schizophrenia often begin during adolescence.
7. Suicide and the LGBTQ+ Community
It’s important to emphasize that merely identifying as LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean someone is prone to suicide. However, because societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community still has a long way to go, many people mistreat young people who don’t identify as straight or cisgender. This mistreatment can lead to mental health challenges that increase the risk of suicide.
If students are surrounded by a safe, supportive, and loving community of adults and peers, the likelihood of suicide is much lower. Many of the causes of depression or mental illness among LGBTQ+ youth come from harassment. This harassment comes in many forms, including physical threats by others. The CDC reports that 34% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were bullied on school property, and 28% were bullied electronically, such as through social media. Students surveyed were also 140% more likely to skip a day of school each month because of safety concerns. This fear can lead to trauma linked to depression, substance abuse, and other behaviors related to suicide.
For more ways to support the LGBTQ+ youth in your life, check out our guide.
How to Recognize Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors
Many, though not all, people who attempt suicide will give some kind of warning beforehand. The signs and signals can vary, and not everyone will show all the signs.
Recognizing Suicidal Thoughts in Your Students and Loved Ones
Understanding the indicators listed above can help you identify warning signs. According to SAVE, AFSP, and Bridges to Recovery, there are some common signs that your loved one might be considering suicide.
Recognizing Suicidal Thoughts in Yourself
It might seem to an outsider that it would be easy to identify suicidal thoughts within oneself, but that’s not always the case. For so many people, thoughts of suicide can start as subtle and difficult to recognize. If you have any of the indicators above, it’s especially important to check in with yourself regularly—though none of them guarantee you’ll experience suicidal thoughts.
Because some suicidal thoughts can be a bit under-the-radar, here are some signs that your thoughts might be more serious:
If you notice any of these warning signs, reach out immediately to the closest hospital or other suicide helplines from our list of resources below.
Before It Happens: Talk to Kids About Suicide
Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, suicide needs to not be a taboo subject—talking about the topic can help the young people to recognize the signs and know that you’re someone they can trust to help. If you’re a teacher, encourage your school to offer professional development for your staff and a curriculum for them to use to teach students about the topic in an age-appropriate way. If you’re a parent, it’s important to not hide the information if a loved one dies by suicide, particularly if the death is of a family member, as suicidal tendencies can be genetic. Young people should know they need to look out for the signs of them in themselves, just as they would if there was a family history of diabetes. A few suggestions for how to have this conversation are:
Ask Kids What They Know
Kids may already have a strong understanding of suicide, have no knowledge of it, or may think they know what it is but have only learned stereotypes and half-truths. Meet them where they are and clarify issues.
Stick to the Facts
It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and stigmas regarding those who consider, attempt, or complete suicide, such as calling them “selfish” or saying they “made a bad choice.” Choose kindness, always, and give only facts rather than your own opinions.
Explain That Suicide Is Part of a Disease or Disorder
Particularly when a child is young, it’s best to explain suicide as part of a sickness.
Talk About Overcoming Obstacles
“There is some suggestive evidence that narratives or stories about resilience have potentially positive effects….telling the story about kids who have pulled through these struggles, and there are ways to get help,” says Abrutyn.
Talk to Teens Like Adults
Teens are smart, and they know when they’re being talked down to or having things hidden from them. Talking to them like you would an adult makes them understand you see them and their potential struggles as real. Encourage them to open up when, not if, they struggle—all teens struggle—and if they’re worried about the safety of a friend or themselves. “I am not going to consider it a fail if you have mental health problems,” is a line suggested by parenting expert Deborah Gilboa.
A Note to Administrators
Be sure your staff is trained on how to have these conversations. Additionally, don’t assume your staff members have no personal experience with the topic. Provide frequent breaks during the training, make it clear they can take additional breaks if needed, and provide an open door and additional resources if they need to talk to someone afterward. Invite them to speak with you if they feel uncomfortable having this conversation with their students, either because of their past or because they don’t feel well-trained enough. This topic can be triggering for some, even for teachers, and it’s essential that they feel safe.
What to Do if You Believe Someone is Suicidal
It’s important to understand that it’s never your fault if a friend or loved one attempts suicide. However, if you recognize warning signs, there are ways to help them if you can.
If you’re worried that bringing up the subject of suicide could do more harm than good (i.e., inspire considering suicide), you can rest assured that it won’t. Conversations like that don’t plant the idea; they give a name to what people may already be feeling and an opportunity to get help. For example, kids as young as five can have thoughts of suicide without even knowing what the term is. What reaching out to someone who might be suicidal can do is show them that you’re a safe person to talk to.
Steps Adults Can Take to Help Suicidal Young People
Approaching a young person who might be suicidal will look different if you’re a teacher or their parent. However, NAMI, Kelty Mental Health, and the Mayo Clinic offer some general tips on how you can help a young person in your life:
As previously mentioned, teachers and school staff should keep an eye on each other—these tips also apply to helping other adults.
Steps Young People Can Take to Help Suicidal Friends
Most importantly, if you believe that your friend might take their life soon, reach out to an adult immediately and let them know so they can find appropriate resources to help your friend.
Being a kid or a teenager can be hard. If you have a friend who you think might be considering suicide, there are things you can do to help them out. But it’s important to know that regardless of what happens, someone attempting or completing suicide is never your fault. However, you do have the power to try to intervene in the best way you can. The worst thing you risk by reaching out is losing a friendship; it’s worth it if the alternative is losing your friend permanently.
The signs a friend may be experiencing suicidal thoughts can be found above.
As a friend, you often see more of your friend’s behaviors than their parents or other adults might, or they may be more willing to open up to you. If you notice that your friend might have suicidal thoughts, here are some ways you can help:
Steps You Can Take if You Feel Suicidal
If you realize you’re considering suicide, here are some steps to get help for yourself.
What to Do if a Young Person Attempts or Completes Suicide
This topic isn’t something anyone wants to talk or think about. Even with interventions, some young people attempt or complete suicide, and adults are at a loss about how to talk to their children or students about what happened. Suicides are often considered “contagious;” as mentioned, while merely talking about suicide won’t make suicidal thoughts appear, seeing others complete it successfully can encourage others with those thoughts to attempt to follow through. Therefore, it’s essential that other community members are given space to process, discuss, and seek help.
When a person attempts or dies by suicide, their friends may feel confused, guilty, angry, and afraid. Even if they have no history of depression or anxiety, these issues could be triggered by the event.
A few things teachers and parents can do when their child loses a friend or classmate to suicide, according to The Jed Foundation, Colorado Public Radio, and the Child Mind Institute, include:
Suicide Prevention and Support Resources
There are many resources for those who are considering suicide or supporting those who are doing so. Below, you can find resources divided by who they’re best for—though all resources are good for all people—as well as helplines.
Text HOME to 741741
Crisis Text Line
Suicide Prevention Lifeline